WINNER OF THE 2013 NDR CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE
SELECTED BY REBECCA GODFREY
We all have histories of fire within. We’ve scorched and been scorched, and burn still. You must remember the three Hebrews who refused to stoop to a golden statue, who had a furnace kindled against them by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who were tied up and tossed into the blazing fire. The heat’s excessive radiance killed the royal guards charged with building the fire, while the Israelites danced, unbound and unsinged, within. When the three friends emerged, not even the smell of smoke lingered on their hair or clothes. What his court may not have seen, Nebuchadnezzar—peering within the fire—saw: a fourth man walking, loosed and translucent, in the glowing-blue middle of the flames. The annals of the rapacious ruler, the consumed king’s men, the fireproof Israelites, and the unknown fourth contain us in the end. Open them for a while, peer within with eyes alight, for a word in this world grave with grandeur.
Ashes are not markers, making discrete intersecting lines; foreheads are not chalkboards, flat and unbending. The ash sticks or flakes unevenly on each brow based on its surface composition: dry or oily, small or large, wrinkled or taut, with foundation or without. With my thumb, I streak horizontal ash upon vertical ash, yet the cross comes out a Rorschach blot, a terrible smudge that could be anything and nothing. The ritual: to see on others what only they can see on you. The heads of the Haitian workers who spend their shifts wiping shit are so dark that the ashes make little mark. The temples of the demented, too, need not a sign of repentance. I blacken their foreheads for the sake of tradition and to incite us—The Strong, The Fireproof—to crawl through cinders on our knees in contrition of this notion: we are not, will never be them. Lent begins at my nursing home again.
As much as any story is traceable, this one I may chart back to a cold day in Lent in Gallery 20 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I stood wrapped in Mark Rothko paintings. On first encounter, I scribbled what later looked like poetry—bad, frenzied poetry:
Splintered shards of purple, orange, radical blue
and colors that have no name yet
the big apophatic rectangle
the struggle on the edges, rounded and bleeding,
keeping shape, giving way to canvas
the complexity of color and light and layers and simple shape bleeding
into and out of
more spacious than serene
dynamic, changing, changeable
the Ineffable, the expansive—the expressive
a “refiner’s fire”—burning away that
which is unnecessary,
How the pieces dazed me—even the blessed sentence would not do.
Written on the gallery wall were Rothko’s words: “Pictures must be miraculous.” Written in my journal were these words: “It feels exactly right for Lent—the slow depth that begs us to linger but allows us to flit by.” Here is a conversation I overheard between a mother and her young son, standing before one of the pictures:
“What colors do you see?” she asked him.
“White and green,” he responded.
Like me, the mother saw the white but no green. The child was old enough to know the names of colors. The mother hesitated, gently corrected him, and listed some more obvious colors.
“What about orange and yellow?”
“Green,” he said again, peering within the painting, transfixed as if staring at his reflection for the first time.
The mother, perplexed yet patient, offered no other corrective. She steered him into the next room. I stood with the painting, determined, trying on young eyes, straining for translucence, to see the world again of many colors. Sure enough, on the edges—green, unmistakable green.
The translations vary on what one may burn with. “For it is better to marry than burn with desire, with passion, with lust.” I prefer the King James Version that simply says, “It is better to marry than burn.” Burn, period. If one must choose between burning alive or marrying, better go with the latter. This is Paul’s concession to the married life—a resigned shrug, a passionless sigh to necessity. Paul’s burn probably referred to erotic desire—that marriage was an institutional plug for one’s sexually wild wires. I wonder now if the burn was equally the desire to have a “normal” life, a known life with children and heirs and things in common with your ancestors and your neighbors, the desire for family gatherings not to take an awkward turn to why you’re wandering the known world with no possessions with a motley band of missionaries, instead of settling into your father’s business. In modern life, we laugh at such priggish apostolic advice. We balk at the idea that the friction of desire—want, get, have, want— might just toast us to a non-sentient crisp. Desire begets desire: this upon this upon that upon this; no end to desire, to disappointment, to appeasement, to the slow consumptive burn of burnt men. Yes, better to marry. Sex may be the least of our worries.
On our honeymoon to Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristos were on fire, lending a gray haze to the spectral burn of the New Mexico sunset. Hiking trails were closed because of the blaze. In a honeymoon stupor, we decided to take a jeep tour of the mountains instead and wore matching t-shirts and straw hats. Our glossy photos from the tour reveal how grainy the air was with smoke; our young lungs and young love did not seem to notice or care. I recall very little about the tour (could we have possibly seen much?) except when the subject turned to bears. The guide lamented that, while he had seen black bears this season, no cinnamon bears had been spotted, probably because of the fires. Not half an hour later, as we snaked the mountain roads, my husband blurted, “I saw one! I just saw a cinnamon bear! Up there!” The guide yelled to the driver to stop. Ryan pointed to the place at the top of a piney cliff, insistent that he had seen the beast clearly before it had run back into the woods. Our fellow passengers peered through their binoculars; the guide strained to see, too. “Let’s drive back and see if we can catch a glimpse of him. He couldn’t’ve gone far,” the guide said, signaling to the driver to go. For the next twenty minutes, we cruised slowly up and down the same narrow stretch of the mountain pass—on a hunt for the truth of this bear. “I know I saw it,” Ryan pled. I nodded that I believed him, but he already knew I harbored the same doubt as the guide and the passengers who had put down their binoculars after the second drive-by. A decade later Ryan still swears he laid eyes on that reddish bear that emerged from the glowing-red heart of the Sangre de Cristos. He speaks of it as a private joy to have seen what no one else could, and also as burden—the unaccompanied experience, the lonely vision, ephemeral as a burning meteorite flashing through the atmosphere. This image of the lumbering creature, fixed on his inner eye, he must hold singularly as true.
Seven years later, we both beheld the unmistakable beasts. A she-bear and her three cubs crossed our path as we pedaled through the Green Mountains. Ryan stopped his bike; I stopped behind him. A noise—some final escape of air—came from deep in his throat; then I saw what Ryan saw and stopped breathing, too. The mom turned her black head toward the pale human couple knocked defenseless from our bikes. The triplets appeared at the base of her robust hind end. There was no time to ponder the immediate significance of the conventional wisdom about the fierce momma bear with her young—those pamphlet warnings about not messing with a mother when she is with her cubs—as if you could pre-assess the familial arrangement of the wild beast that by chance you’ve aroused. She does not want to tangle, but she will and will go hard until bloody strips of flesh remain on the softly packed dirt of the Cross Vermont Rail-to-Trail.
We have tried to capture what we were thinking and feeling at the moment of encounter. We can recall the details before and after but nothing at the point of presence. It was pre-verbal, pre-fear, pre-striving, pre-desire. In those few seconds, there was nothing like named emotions—only the quickened breath and the heaving space stretched, endless, between living beings like a translucent, magnetic string. It is only later that we desired to make plans of escape, or to take a picture or picture the people who might have mourned our mauling. It is only later that we write about the experience like it was something in time, like it was a made thing, fearful and wonderful. It is only later that we traffic in all these words.
I began to understand the pull—the compulsion—of some to recklessness, thrill seeking, suicidal stunts. Morbidity is not the aim. Rather, they seek unification—life and death, no longer in separate, sterile cells, quarantined off from the other’s tragic hope. In their quest for union, in their desperate desire to fly close to terrific beauty, they risk feeling something so wholly as to assume it or be assumed by it. Confronted by bears, we felt the euphoria of pure being and the fear of death as inseparable, identical even. Perfect love casts out fear, but when is love ever perfect? For now, the threats of love and fear, being and nonbeing—like flint on stone—create the necessary friction for a life burning but not consumed. The first time I entered deep into prayer—below the place of words—I felt a moment of intense fear, like spinning in a free fall or the feverish second before you jolt awake from a bad dream. I am told this is not uncommon. If you live long enough, terror and beauty will merge; if you survive, your life will be set ablaze.
A curator of a Rothko exhibit wrote, “Rothko’s open rectangles suggest the rims of flame in containing fires, or the entrances to tombs…open sarcophagi.” Some art critics have wondered if Rothko’s rectangles are reminiscent of the mass graves, those unholy holes in the earth, from his native Latvian village under pogrom-prone Russia. Rothko rejected such literal interpretations; who knows to what depths a picture may point. It comes as little surprise the curator’s first metaphor led him to fire. Rothko’s is a strange fire—not a frenzied burn, but a slow burn, fire bound by a ring, drawing your gaze so completely that emptiness, forgetfulness overtake the seer in the centering properties of flame. His paintings serve as portals to the shadowy realms, the lip of a fire pit, a border crossing that is nothing if not miraculous.
The father of my brother-in-law farms right along the Missouri River, on the eastern side of the Nebraska-Missouri border. It was winter when, from inside the cab of his combine, he saw flames from the great machine’s underbelly at-once emerging and consuming the outside of his enclosure. Before he hurled himself through the fire outside his door, a thought came to him as cold and clear as the Great Plains January sky: this-may-very-well-be-it. Death can be this mundane, artless even.
He flung open the blazing door of his incinerator, leapt to the ground, stumbled to his feet, and held his seared hands upright, facing them inward in the air before his face, as if he were holding a fragile globe between his palms for inspection. He presented to the chilly peace outside his numbed and molting twin testimonies to terror and grace: the world in a nutshell. A farmhand rushed him to the hospital in his pick-up. On the ride, he sat frozen in silence, his burning appendages still upward, suspending the invisible sphere before him, raised to the author of blaze. He would need a ventilator for a time and multiple skin grafts. He would spend the winter in a burn unit two hours from his farm and exhaust the planting season in rehab. He hurled his body through fire to survive (was there any other way?), yet what if he had stayed, froze a second too long, hand still on hot handle, in a cab turned crematorium. When we feel we cannot escape fire, our next instinct is to hide. Fire victims are most commonly found shut up in closets and on rooftops.
A woman—distressed about her dead husband’s request for cremation—came to me. “Chaplain,” she said, “I just can’t get the image of him burning up out of my head. What will God think? How will he be put back together again if he’s all burned up, just a heap of ashes?” I reassured her that God is big enough to reassemble us, even out of our ashes. Besides, even if we are buried with our bodies intact, they would decompose, break down to elements and particles not unlike ash. But there is something I, too, cannot get past about cremation for myself. The elementary lesson of chemical change versus physical change—the former is irreversible, elementally altering. Fire transforms; it does not modify.
Fire was not welcomed in our home. My mother survived a house fire when she was a girl and passed the torch of fear of flame to her children. Our fireplace, never christened; our birthday candles, lit only to be blown out while the final notes of singing still floated, unresolved, in the air. To spend a life wary of fire, I don’t know how to embrace such transmutation in the end.
The controlled burn, like the tame tiger, is an illusion; both can be shaped by human effort, yet humans can coax neither fire nor beast out of the instinct to consume. To come out of the dewy dawn-light of innocence is to enter darkness and discover the ache for light. It is to understand that things, all things, are not begotten, floated down on wings of light, but forged—hammered out, cast and recast in unseen furnaces. In dark forests, the tiger stalks and thrashes its prey; it sleeps and mates and gives birth and dies, all in its necessary time. It is fearful to we who do not know our own symmetry, who refuse the rule of pain and fire, who confuse desire with necessity. We live as if in a pure land, skipping by streams and over mead, but our tooth, angled for the slaughter, betrays us. No longer can we deny experience; the hot coal has touched our lips and commands us to cry out. Is it too far off to say that utterance—or just one blasted word even—might be what saves us? Or maybe the desire will be enough. Truly I say to you: I burn for words. I don’t mean that unromantically. When I desire a word, I plunge deep, deeper, deeper still, until it either cools to a death or explodes the page. There are times when you know you’ve hit it.
Rothko encouraged his viewers to stand 45 centimeters from his pieces to get the optimal experience, to enter into the picture to the point of absorption into the fields of color. “A painting is not about experience,” Rothko declared. “It is an experience.” Sometimes I feel engulfed; often times I feel nothing, bored even. But an infernal wisdom dictates: stand there still. It will come; we all must wait for it, and wait for it, and wait for it. There are particles of the smoldering universe out of sight, twitching of life under the layers and layers of color upon stroke of color, inching toward visibility. Histories of fire lie within each of us. What else could set your dry bones ablaze? What else could parch your tongue and unfurl it to scorch the world with its truth and lies? What else could tether you to the burning stakes of your ancestors’ courage and shame? What else but radiant color and heat? What else but flicker and flame? What else could melt this pen to your trembling fingers, and command: write? In the end is not fire conversion—turning toward and burning for this charred world? Is not fire issuing finally this command: trust the unseen vision, speak one true word? The beginning of wisdom is this: the glowing dark fragment—beheld, guarded, uttered.
God of Hagar and Sarah, God of Rebekah, God of Leah and Rachel.
Sister loads her greased thumb with ash and takes aim at my forehead. Fluttering my lids, I fight to keep my eyes open amidst the shower of falling soot. She presses hard and pronounces: “Turn from evil. Follow Christ all ways.” I pivot to the congregation of old women mostly, bound up in the metal clutter of wheelchairs and walkers, all with wrinkled heads cross-branded. I find myself burned among the burnt. The brand fixed upon me, marking the path to sacrifice: to pass through the furnace where words are forged, where desire and desolation are cauterized—and emerge, in blood and fire, smelling of smoke, with a life trembling and ablaze.